Searching for a moral perspective. John Fowles scans past for that which he can't find in the `amoral' present

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In his latest book, ``A Maggot,'' British novelist John Fowles describes both a main character and himself as ``a child before the real now; far happier out of it, in a narrative past or a prophetic future, [or] . . . the imaginary present.'' It is in person, however, that the author comes closest to embodying his own epigraphic lines.

``I suppose it's because I'm looking for a moral perspective on our own age always,'' says Fowles during one of his infrequent interview abroad, a rare interruption to his reclusive life in rural England. ``That's really the main reason for going into the past and the future.''

Indeed, if anything characterizes this best-selling author of seven works of fiction, including ``The French Lieutenant's Woman,'' ``The Collector,'' ``The Magus,'' and ``Daniel Martin,'' it is this restless, almost unquenchable, moral intelligence.

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In the nearly 40 years he has been writing, Fowles has fused an existentialist's preoccupation with individual choice to an 18th-century moral perspective, all leavened with a wry, if occasionally self-mocking, modern voice.

The resulting body of work (``A Maggot'' is his 14th book) is a product rare among writers. Not only has Fowles achieved critical and commercial success -- Anthony Burgess called ``The French Lieutenant's Woman'' one of the best novels published in English since 1939 -- but

his position is antithetical to that of the modern novelist. He is a writer with a calling, a man unshy about his purpose. ``For me this remains an amoral age,'' he says.

Book reviews, which Fowles typically disdains, have been mixed. Critics have found ``A Maggot'' long on quirky technique and short on pure narrative. The author is not easily cowed. ``I do like straight narrative,'' he says, ``but I think nowadays oblique ways of telling stories are probably more to cultivated tastes.''

For Fowles, ``A Maggot'' remains the result of an intensely personal ``whim or quirk'' -- the original, if now obsolete, meaning of ``maggot.'' In this instance, the maggot was a persistent visual image in the author's imagination: ``a small group of travellers, faceless . . . went in my mind towards an event.'' Fowles fused that motif with an interest in the Shakers, that 18th-century sect of puritanical Protestants who originated in England but later prospered in the United Sta tes.

With a face more finely chiseled than it appears in his familiar bushy photographs, Fowles presents in person an almost perfect portrait of the English country gentleman. He is polite, almost shy, to a fault. During an interview he leans forward, cocking his ear for questions, answering in his softly accented voice. Modest about his achievements, Fowles is also unflaggingly erudite about nearly everything else. His almost global concern for the moral fabric of mankind is everywhere evident in his conver sation.

``In parts of every Western country is this dominance of self over how one sees the world. I think, for me, it's outrageous now. Nobody knows how to live simply anymore. . . . It's this kind of morality that does really worry me.''

For Fowles, the role of dissenters -- historically, politically, and personally -- is sacrosanct.

Now, in ``A Maggot,'' Fowles has created what may be his most overt morality tale yet. His third historical novel, the book traces the author's usual theme of individual freedom through a complex narrative that is part detective story, part science fiction, part gothic horror tale, and part historical narrative. As is also typical of Fowles, the main character is a strong if enigmatic woman. In this case, she is an actual historical figure, Rebecca Lee, the mother of Ann Lee, founder of the American Sha ker movement.

``By setting [the novel] back in the 18th century, one thinks of religion then as one would think of politics today,'' says Fowles. ``In other words, as a massive hope for a whole range of feelings and convictions [beyond] just religion.''

Just as ``The French Lieutenant's Woman'' probed many Victorian conventions, so ``A Maggot'' explores 18th-century Britain. The foil in each case is the 20th century.

The spur to these artistic quests is Fowles's devotion to individual as well as collective change. ``If I'm really being honest, [mine] is an evolutionary interest in how the natural species change.''

And his is a weather eye. ``I think all modern man, all Western society, is not self-conscious enough,'' he says. ``There is something in man that loves to be drugged, loves to be brainwashed, to despise, say, certain aspects of pop culture, and yet rather likes it. In a way, this is something I like about the Shakers . . . they crossed certain human activities because they were absolutely sure they were wrong.''

Fowles himself is not an admirer of much of modern society. He despairs of excessive conformity, dislikes the encroaching presence of American culture and the general homogenizing of the globe.

``No dissenters get to like homogeneity,'' he says with a smile. Dissent is ``what keeps us alive in our society. Even when it's in forms I don't like, like modern evangelism, you know somewhere the principle is still right.''

In his fiction, Fowles consistently addresses the individual in conflict with himself. Typically it is his male protagonists -- Daniel Martin, Charles Smithson, and now Henry Ascough -- struggling to discover what has gone wrong with themselves, their generation, and their age.

It is a Fowlesian quest that begins and ends with the individual. The author's female characters, although frequently unfathomable, usually point the way.

``Where women enter it's usually a better society,'' he says bluntly. ``I do not like father-dominated societies . . . such as the worst of the Victorian societies. I'm all for the whole feminist movement since the 1900s. I think it's reflected in literature . . . science . . . the Renaissance, the whole 20th century.''

This fascination with the leavening effects of femininity was largely the impetus behind ``A Maggot.''

The female portrait on the book jacket, Fowles says, is from a painting he used as a visual motif for his character Rebecca. ``It's a mild, gentle face but also accusing and demanding. . . . [It is] this idea of something on the base side of human nature being overcome by something deeper, something to do with sincerity and courage.''

It is the same catalyst for Fowles's next project. A local history musuem has just been loaned the diary of a lady who was a militant suffragette in 1906.

``It has never been published and this fascinates me. I long to be [working on] it, partly because I think there is a book in it.''

When asked how he researches the historical aspects of his books, he smiles. ``I collect 18th-century books.'' Vast stretches of ``A Maggot'' take the form of a 1700s court trial and required pages of dialogue done in strict 18th-century vernacular. Fowles admits it was a concious choice and challenge. ``I get more and more fascinated by dialogue. It is the one thing you never feel you completely command.''

To perfect his technique, Fowles says he literally underlined phrases in the texts he collects, ``phrases that convey to the 20th-century mind what the 18th-century mind would have said. That isn't quite the same as being absolutely accurate to the 18th century.''

It is an almost stated preference for a different century and one that is accessible only through literature. Fowles smiles again. ``Yes, I do like Defoe. I don't like to think of people like Defoe as dead. They still live for me. . . . Moli`ere? He might as well be in the next room. That's what you feel when you're in the text, that they live forever.''

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